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July 4 marks start of road to independence

The Fourth of July is upon us.

This is the time of year for picnics, family gatherings, evening bonfires and parties by the pool. For many people, this is vacation season. Some folks choose to stay at home, taking a break from work and accomplishing outdoor tasks such as painting or landscaping. Others pack their bags and head for the beach or the amusement park, intent on making the most of the opportunity.

For me, however, it seems that summer is slipping away. I have yet to dip my toe in a pool or drop a fishing line in a pond. While every Independence Day weekend comes with an inherent spirit of celebration, each year I can’t help but feel it is a turning point – the date when summer stops gaining momentum and begins its trek toward fall.

But it is not really the summer season that we celebrate on July 4. Instead, it is the anniversary of our nation’s birth – the decision to declare independence from Great Britain – that is the cause for celebration.

The road to independence was a long and bumpy one. For several years leading up to the Declaration of Independence, those living in the British colonies of North America had long objected to “taxation without representation” and other practices of the British crown. Although the colonists considered themselves loyal British subjects, they often felt that they were not afforded the same rights and privileges as other citizens of the realm.

On July 4, 1776, America already was at war with Great Britain. The military hostilities had begun more than a year earlier in April 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. In June 1776, the colonies’ Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia, formed a committee and appointed Thomas Jefferson to begin work on a draft of the declaration.

Jefferson had finished his work by July 2, and it was on that date that the Continental Congress actually decided to declare the nation’s independence. About 80 minor changes were made to the original wording that Jefferson had drafted, and the Continental Congress approved the final version of the document on July 4.

Nearly a month would pass before members would sign the official copy of the declaration, and it was not delivered to King George III until November of that year.

So why do we celebrate our independence on July 4?

The very first festivities surrounding the occasion took place on July 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, where bands played music and bells were rung as the declaration received its first public reading.

A year later on July 4, 1777, the City of Brotherly Love celebrated the anniversary of the declaration with more bells, bonfires and fireworks. Other towns and cities gradually adopted those practices. Picnics, speeches, contests and games were added to celebrations over the years, and these festivities became more common and widespread at the conclusion of the nation’s second conflict with Great Britain, the War of 1812.

In 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson wrote his final letter, declining an invitation to celebrate the milestone in Washington, D.C., due to his declining health. In that letter, he expressed his hope that the American people would forever celebrate the adoption of the document.

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government,” Jefferson wrote about the declaration. “That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

On July 4, 1826, Jefferson died at his home in Virginia just hours before the death of another founding father and former president, John Adams.

Forty-four years later in 1870, Congress declared Independence Day as a national holiday to be observed on July 4 each year. Congress reaffirmed the action in 1938, when July 4 became a paid holiday for federal employees.

This year marks the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson’s hope that Americans would continue to celebrate the document and our independence has been fulfilled. Today we still mark the occasion with bonfires, picnics, parades, family gatherings and especially fireworks. I believe our third president would be pleased.

I urge all of you to participate in Independence Day celebrations being held across our region this year. Take time to enjoy yourselves and to consider the principles and freedoms that we enjoy today, thanks to the Declaration of Independence.

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